Scrappy. What a perfect name for a lawyer! And it was so fitting. But it wasn’t a moniker that he “chose” as many of our brethren and sisters now do to enhance their marketability. Scrappy was ascribed to Clifton L. Holmes, before he ever drew his first breath. His aunt, upon seeing how active he was in his mother Edith’s belly started calling him Scrappy, and the name just stuck. I don’t imagine that the aunt realized how prescient she was when she bestowed that nickname upon him.
Scrappy was born in the Piney Woods of East Texas in Kilgore on February 17, 1939. His dad, Clyde, worked for six or seven decades in the oilfields – over fifty of those years with the same company. And Clyde bestowed in Scrappy a work ethic which he carried all his life. Scrappy certainly never forgot where he came from. I will always remember him talking about his roots. He would occasionally tell me about his Cherokee lineage and how when his grandmother died, she had to be buried outside of the community cemetery fence because she was an Indian, labeled a heathen. When he would stand in front of juries and talk about not judging someone until you walked a mile in their shoes, Scrappy would tell it with a twist – talking to them about his little Cherokee grandmother and then telling the jury how she would always tell him not to judge people until he had walked a mile in their moccasins. Might sound a little corny at first blush, but I knew he was talking from his heart. So did the jurors, and they ate it up.
Scrappy managed to get out of Kilgore, out of the oil patch, and while supporting his own fledgling family, he worked his way through both college and eventually law school, graduating cum laude from George Washington University National Law Center in 1966. He then came home to Texas and started what would become a legendary career.
And what a career it was! He was named the Texas Outstanding Criminal Defense Lawyer in 1992 and 1996 by the Criminal Justice Section of The Texas Bar. He was officially designated a “Texas Hero” by a proclamation issued by the Texas Secretary of State in 1992. Perennially tabbed as a Super Lawyer. He was named by Texas Lawyer as one of the “Top Five Go-To Lawyers in Texas” in 2002 and 2007. He was enshrined by TCDLA in the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer Hall of Fame in 2007.
Absolutely one of the best lawyers I have ever seen communicate with the jury, one might argue about his place in the pantheon of Texas criminal lawyers, but there is no doubt that he belongs there. And Lord knows that the best in the nation come from The Lone Star State. Best of his generation? Best ever? I don’t know. But I am certain that Scrappy deserves to be mentioned among them. I am reminded of what Bum Phillips once said when he was asked if Earl Campbell was in a class by himself, Phillips responded “I don’t know if he’s in a class by himself, but I know when that class gets together, it sure doesn’t take long to call the roll.” The same is true of Scrappy.
But Scrappy’s calling wasn’t only about representing his clients, and he certainly wasn’t self-absorbed in seeking to polish his own star. Perhaps his greatest legacy stems from his love of his fellow criminal defense lawyers which was exemplified by his dedication and constant efforts to help each of us become everything that was possible in our collective and individual pursuits of justice.
He was one of the early founding fathers of TCDLA, first serving on the Board of Directors from 1978 through 1984, and then as President in 1984 and 1985. I remember him telling stories about them occasionally literally passing the hat around at board meetings in the early days to pay the bills. He was driven to find ways to help educate and train other lawyers. To that end, he helped found the Criminal Defense Lawyer Project. He was also instrumental in establishing the Trial College in Huntsville where thousands of young criminal lawyers have learned how to better represent the citizen accused.
Perhaps as a result of how his grandmother was treated throughout her life, and her tragic experiences, Scrappy was a champion of racial and gender equality. He loathed racism, misogyny, and bigotry. Just ask Betty Blackwell, TCDLA’s first female president, how instrumental Scrappy was in encouraging her and helping her as she blazed a trail for our sisters in TCDLA. Indeed, Scrappy was always at the forefront pushing us to become more inclusive and more diverse, to become a tent where everyone was welcome and equally valued.
His love for TCDLA was without measure, and his dedication to us was unceasing. I could not begin to quantify for you the hours, days, and years that he enthusiastically gave to better our band of brothers and sisters. The personal investment that he made in all of us is staggering. I know this to be true, we have been blessed with a plethora of great leaders, but I don’t believe that anyone has ever done more for us, or more to promote the common good than Scrappy. He was a Titan.
Although you would never hear Scrappy complain about his lot in life, he certainly had personal hardships. While their four children were still young, Scrappy lost his wife, the love of his life, Edwina. Additionally, in the late 70s, he was riding in a car with fellow lawyers that was involved in a terrible accident where one of them was killed. Scrappy was thrown from the vehicle and onto the pavement, physically broken, causing him to endure multiple future surgeries and encumbering him with pain for the rest of his life. Then, within the past decade, he lost a beloved grandson in another car accident. Scrappy knew devastating personal loss, and I think those experiences made him more empathetic to the plight of others.
And oh, how he loved his family. Loving son, husband, and father. Doting grandfather. In a day and age when grandparents seem to crave being referred to by the grandkids by whatever catchy or chic name of the times is, Scrappy absolutely reveled in his grandchildren calling him by that old-school southern familial name, Big Daddy. He did everything within his power to let them know they were cherished, he provided for their educations, he endeavored to expand their horizons, and he encouraged them to find happiness and to become the best they could be.
Scrappy was compassionate toward others. He was kind. He was giving. If you spent a modicum of time with him, you felt that you had known each other forever. It didn’t matter if you were an old friend, a judge, a prosecutor, or a first-year lawyer – after two minutes with Scrappy, you would feel like he really cared about you. And the truth is, he did.
He always treated people with respect, regardless of their station in life. He was always courteous to his opponents in the courtroom, a trait that regrettably we seem to find in fewer and fewer lawyers these days. Scrappy was always perplexed by the erosion of civility and hoped that we would find a way to return to that as a norm.
And what a mind! His intellect was absolutely astounding. In many ways that made his battle with the cruel disease of dementia seem particularly unfair – to see the brilliance stripped away. I know that we do not get to choose the manner of our departure from this world, and I recognize that death comes to us in a variety of ways. The manner of our passing is unrelated to our character, and good people often have to sometimes fight long and protracted battles. But, I just can’t help but feel that Scrappy deserved better. Instead of that brilliant mind slipping into a state where he didn’t know who or where he was, or what he had been, it would have been so much more fitting for him to die in a courtroom at the end of one of his great closing arguments. He should have been carried from a courtroom on his shield.
He was such a joy to be around. His wit, his warmth. . . he was always the hub of the wheel in any setting. Folks were drawn to him, and vice-versa. He loved people, and we loved him. Scrappy meant so much to so many of us.
As a result of that, he will endure. Thomas Campbell once wrote, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” That certainly is true of Scrappy.
C.H. Spradlin said it another way, “A good character is the best tombstone. Those who love you, and were helped by you, will remember you. So, carve your name on hearts, and not on marble.”
I will miss Scrappy immensely and all the good times we had together. His name is certainly carved on my heart, as it is with many of you.
I think of To Kill a Mockingbird (just about everyone’s favorite lawyer book/movie), and the scene where Atticus Finch is preparing to leave the courtroom after Tom Robinson’s conviction. Atticus has done his best for Tom and in doing so exposed the racism surrounding the accusation and the trial. Still, Tom is found guilty. Atticus’s daughter, Jean Louise, better known as Scout, is sitting in the courtroom’s balcony with the blacks from the community, who were segregated and excluded from the main floor of the courtroom. As Atticus began to leave, all of the African Americans silently rose to their feet in a show of respect for him. Scout, still seated, doesn’t seem to understand what was happening until Reverend Sykes tells her “Miss Jean Louise? Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father is passin’”.
TCDLA? TCDLA, stand up. Scrappy’s passin’.